Posts tagged ‘the independent’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

4 October, 2010

Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge. Image courtesy of Jo Allan PR

Waterloo East Theatre, 28 September – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

While they slouch about waiting for a perpetually delayed Ryanair flight home, four lads reminisce and recriminate about what they can remember of their Costa del Sol holiday. The best bits of Dougal Irvine’s new musical call to mind a sort of booze-hazy Rashomon: the natural disparities between the four lads’ perspectives are compounded by alcohol-induced memory distortion.

Comparing Departure Lounge to Rashomon makes it sound much more pretentious than it is. It rarely feels heavier than watching a bunch of mates larking about. But Irvine does have noteworthy things to say about laddism in general, and the idea of the lads’ holiday in particular.

What, for instance, is the difference between a lad, a guy, and a hooligan? And if the measure of a good night out is how little of it you remember, what’s the point of shelling out extra to have your nights out abroad? One particularly enjoyable number, ‘Spanish Hospitality’, suggests cheekily that entertaining raucous British holidaymakers is Spain’s ongoing penance for sending the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The book, minimalistically scored for two acoustic guitars, references the boyband pop subgenre with its catchy choruses, close-harmony singing and slightly self-conscious white boy rap interludes.

The dialogue between numbers is less well judged. We’re force-fed, not drip-fed, the characters’ backstories; the phrase “I mean” is used a few times too, often to execute handbrake turns in the flow of conversation; and the closeted character’s self-realisation and coming out is perfunctory and unconvincing – all of which are admittedly minor, but nevertheless disappointing, detractions from an otherwise enjoyable show.

Written by Dougal Irvine

Crew includes Pip Minnithorpe (director), Spesh Maloney (musical director), Cressida Carré (choreography and musical staging), Will Reynolds (lighting and set designer), Georgia Lowe (costume designer) and Gareth Owen (sound designer)

Cast includes Chris Fountain (JB), Verity Rushworth (Sophie), Jack Shalloo (Pete), Liam Tamne (Jordan) and Steven Webb (Ross)

Need a second opinion?

12 September, 2010

Punk Rock (2010)

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

Lyric Hammersmith, 6 – 18 September (then touring)

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you missed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock this time last year, now’s your chance to make good. Despite only three of the original cast having survived to join this touring production, in most important respects it’s a facsimile of the premiere.

This is not an unequivocally good thing. While ultimately rewarding, Punk Rock is a slow starter. Until the interval, little happens besides a bunch of Stockport sixth-formers chatting in the library. What’s said is often insightful, sometimes suprising, and undaunted by big themes, but offers few clues about where the play might be headed. This is intentional, but potentially makes for a meandering, purposeless first half. The original production didn’t surmount this issue, and this one, being a near-perfect recreation, doesn’t either.

By the interval, enough tension has accumulated to tauten the sails and drive the play to its heart-thumping conclusion. A large portion of that tension is attributable to Bennett Francis, the bully whose faux-congenial humiliation games seem calculated to incubate retaliatory action.

Bennett’s is the only noticeably altered portrayal. In 2009, Henry Lloyd-Hughes lent the character a genuine affability that suggested he believed his own bullshit, that to him his victimisation of poor awkward genius Chadwick Meade really was just horseplay. With a sneering Edward Franklin in the blazer instead, Bennett is intentionally spiteful rather than monstrously insensitive; his villainy is a little more clear-cut, which peels an onionskin-thin layer of nuance away from the deliberately unfathomable climax.

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer), Pete Rice (sound designer) and Kate Waters (fight director)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Edward Franklin (Bennett Francis), Ruth Milne (Cissy Franks), Mike Noble (Chadwick Meade), Laura Pyper (Lily Cahill), Rupert Simonian (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey), Juliet York (Lucy Francis)

Need a second opinion?

27 August, 2010

Sub Rosa ****

Hill Street Theatre, 5 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s an interesting push-me-pull-you effect going on between Sub Rosa and the Masonic lodge in which it’s staged. The building’s warren-like layout and Masonic décor naturally occasion a kind of superstitious reverence over and above what the play alone can evoke. Meanwhile, the production imposes its own, slightly broader brand of eerie, haunted-house ambience on the place.

The production – initially framed as an educational guided tour – takes place after dark, and the building is dimly lit. The geometric carvings of the Masons are picked out in sinister reds and lilacs, as is the backstage apparatus of the theatre: reminding us we’re backstage, after hours, seeing things normally kept out of the public eye.

Tours leave every ten minutes, so each group is never more than one room away from the next, but the layout of the building is such that with precise stage management, the groups can be completely concealed from each other. Creaking footsteps and hushed voices, just out of earshot, feel like an intentional part of the production.

But even once it’s taken full advantage of everything the site has to offer, the production still has to make impositions in order to evoke its desired Gothic atmosphere. Hidden speakers pipe in creepy rumblings and the crackle of flames. Once space is flooded with fog. A stuffed fox leers, spotlit, from a baluster, apropos of absolutely nothing. To achieve its goals, the production engages and cooperates with this specific site up to a certain point, then, perhaps faced with a shortfall of spookiness, turns to more generic techniques that could create the same effect in any building.

Probably not coincidentally, deliberately appearing to be something you’re not is a major theme of the play. Six ghosts stationed around the building recount the tale of the Winter Palace music hall and the power struggle between its manager, Mr Hunter (a Mason) and the newest chorus girl, Flora – and it isn’t a tale for the easily-made-queasy. Nothing is reenacted, only narrated, but David Leddy’s writing and the six actors’ intense performances are graphic and distressing enough to leave more sensitive patrons bent double deep-breathing on the stairs between scenes.

It is, however, neither exploitative nor gratuitous in its brutality. The script is poetic, and every word and image – even or perhaps especially the gruesome ones – is included in the service of the story, not to cause cheap shocks.

Written by David Leddy

Crew includes David Leddy (director), Nich Smith (lighting design) and Graham Sutherland (sound design)

Cast includes Angela Darcy (Millie Merkeley), Claire Dargo (Ida McCracken), Isabella Jarrett (Miss Thorn), Isabelle Joss (Dillie Merkeley), Adam McNamara (Svaty Václav) and Benny Young (Angus MacNeil)

Need a second opinion?

16 August, 2010

Gutted. A Revenger’s Musical ***

Assembly @ George Street, 7 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Orphaned Sorrow has finally married her parents’ murderer, step one in her elaborate but strangely poorly thought-out revenge. Early on her resolve fluctuates for the sake of making her redeemable, instead making her a ditherer: an even less sympathetic quality than irredeemability. The book is mostly prosaic and uninspired, but not offensively so, and the production isn’t without a certain boisterous, admirably carefree charm.

Need a second opinion?

11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Need a second opinion?

1 March, 2010

Lyn Gardner fully expects to be replaced by Katie Price

Written for The Collective Review, 1 March 2010

The national newspapers’ habit of replacing their retired head theatre critics with columnists and political sketchwriters is pretty worrying for those of us on the bottom rungs of the theatre criticism career ladder, as I pointed out in January, when The Times announced Libby Purves would be replacing Benedict Nightingale in their top spot.

Well, it turns out up-and-comers like me aren’t the only ones concerned by the trend:  some of the country’s most influential theatre critics also expressed reservations about the appointments last Friday, at Theatre Critics In The Spotlight, a panel discussion hosted by The Student Workshop of Royal Holloway, University of London (pictured).

Even before the panel hosts – Royal Holloway lecturer and Variety theatre critic Karen Fricker, and Student Workshop Creative Learning Officer Sheryl Hill – formally posed the question, panellist Mark Shenton – critic for the Sunday Express and daily blogger for The Stage – repeatedly brought up the topic.

In Shenton’s view, the trend is a cost-saving measure, symptomatic of the problems facing the newspaper and media industry as a whole.  His fellow panellist Kate Bassett, lead critic for the Independent on Sunday, pithily summarised those problems, saying, “Newspapers don’t know how to make money any more”.

Shenton explained that papers could avoid paying an extra salary by simply adding theatre criticism to the duties of an existing member of staff, adding that editors no longer consider theatre criticism to be a full-time occupation.

Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times recalled – enlighteningly, for those of us relatively new to the business – the appointment of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Portillo as theatre critic for the New Statesman, which he considers to be the beginning of the trend.  Worryingly, he also pointed out that his own promotion to lead critic at the FT is the only instance in living memory of a retiring lead critic being replaced by their number two at the same paper – most second-stringers have to defect to a different publication in order to secure a top slot.

Lyn Gardner, critic and blogger for The Guardian, concluded the discussion with this bleak yet matter-of-fact premonition of the industry’s future:  “I fully expect my job will one day be done by Katie Price”.

3 February, 2010

My Stories, Your Emails

Barbican, 2 – 13 February 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ursula Martinez is an enigma and so is her new solo show, My Stories, Your Emails. An original member of La Clique, Martinez exists in the borderlands between stand-up comedy, burlesque dance, stage magic and performance art. Similarly, My Stories, Your Emails is a lecture, a stand-up act, a play, a confession and an autobiography while simultaneously being none of these things.

It also appears simultaneously to be a constructive, creative response to a potentially upsetting situation and a petty, misdirected act of vengeance.

As the title suggests, it’s a show of two halves. The first involves Martinez reading (mostly) humorous autobiographical anecdotes from a lectern. Her deadpan delivery is disconcertingly reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, though Martinez excels at getting laughs by leaving stories hanging, instead of by comic over-explanation.

The stories serve as a brief introduction to Martinez’s life, revealing aspects of her upbringing and career, details about her family and so on, without sketching anything like a complete picture of her as a person.

The second half concerns a similarly incomplete picture – a video of her magic/striptease act Hanky Panky, which was released onto the internet without her permission – and some of the astonishing conclusions people the world over drew about her as a result. It’s a pageant showcasing some prime examples of that uniquely 21st century prose genre, the speculative online solicitation, in which the objective is to coat every syllable in steaming sexual subtext, but convince the receiving party that you are not just another hopeless case begging for sex.

There’s a surprising variety of pretexts, from those who idolise Martinez as a campaigner for Nudism, to those who want to book her act, through those seeking friendship to those barefacedly requesting sex. What they have in common is that they all think they know, understand or have some kind of claim over Martinez just because they’ve watched a video of her stripping and making a silk handkerchief disappear.

The concept of this segment is a problematic one. A piece of Martinez’s work not intended for mass online consumption ended up online; she responds to this by taking fanmail (complete with full names, photos and even some telephone numbers) presumably meant for her eyes only and performing it publicly. The majority of the men (and they are all men) don’t come out of it especially well. On paper it feels like an eye for an eye.

But she performs the emails without commentary: the men are allowed to present themselves in their own words (though she provides each with an appropriate accent). It also becomes clear from occasional instances of two-way correspondence that their permission has been sought and granted to incorporate their words and pictures into the show.

To presume to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the motivation and ethics behind My Stories, Your Emails would be to make the same mistake as the men. Best just to present the facts and let Ursula Martinez remain an enigma.

Written by Ursula Martinez

Crew includes Mark Whitelaw (director)

Cast includes Ursula Martinez

Need a second opinion?

14 December, 2009

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays

Bush Theatre, 2 December 2009 – 9 January 2010

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Two one-act plays back to back don’t usually make a successful two-act play. Right? Which suggests it’s probably no coincidence that Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved and Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower work so well as a double bill; it seems likely they were always meant to be performed together.

It was clear from the plays’ debuts, a year apart at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that they were stylistically and thematically of a piece. Each is a monologue in which Golaszewski relates romantic episodes from ‘his’ life, or a fictionalised version of it (in Widower he imagines himself in the year 2056, following marriage and a moderately successful TV career), aided by some simple props and a gift for writing fresh, cliché-free imagery.

What wasn’t immediately obvious back then was how neatly the two would bolt together for their London transfer. At around an hour each they were bite-sized enough for the choice-rich, time-poor Festival theatregoer, but the double bill is substantial enough to be worth a London audience’s while. More importantly, the emotional and thematic trajectories of Golaszewski as a character and a playwright are revealed and reinforced by the juxtaposition; images, foibles and techniques introduced in About A Girl pay off with interest when revisited in Widower.

Little gimmicks used in About A Girl simply to create sight gags give rise instead to pathos when they recur in the altered context of Widower. Golaszewski’s tendency to idolise women is the quirky fulcrum of About A Girl, but Widower acknowledges the disadvantages of such an attitude when applied to a more adult kind of relationship; the wide-eyed, innocent awe of female beauty that characterises About A Girl is only briefly retrodden in Widower before tragedy abruptly erases it in favour of a whole new range of grown-up emotions like bitterness, desperation and regret.

Individually the plays are snapshots of a man at two different stages of emotional maturity. Combined, they sketch a more complete portrait of a man learning the hard way that the reality of long-term commitment can never be as idealistically romantic as rose-tinted recollections of unrealised adolescent love. Underscoring it all are the insecurities of a young playwright coming uneasily to terms with his own premonitions of future emotional disillusionment and bodily deterioration. The whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts – and given all the stars, awards and praise each play received individually, marrying them is sure to result in a critical mass of acclaim.

Written by Stefan Golaszewski

Crew includes Phillip Breen (director/designer)

Cast includes Stefan Golaszewski

Need a second opinion?

2 October, 2009

Money

New SHUNT Space, 30 September – 22 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The machine fills the New SHUNT Space from floor to ceiling. It clanks, rumbles, whooshes steam and gushes water. The specifics of how it works and what it does are stubbornly obscure from within as well as without. In that regard, it’s a bit like investment banking.

Bear with the comparison. Provided you’re willing to risk a few unaided leaps of logic, it does eventually make a surprising amount of sense. (In that regard, it’s a bit like the production staged inside the machine: Money, a SHUNT event inspired by Émile Zola’s novel L’Argent.)

The machine is the undisputed star of the production, which, after a few deliberately confusing false-starts, eventually reveals itself as a parable about the dangers of stock market speculation. As a performance space, the machine is constantly, wondrously surprising; just when it seems it has nothing left up its sleeve, whole new rooms emerge from under ingenious camouflage.

Its steampunk pistons and flywheels also drive the plot, such as it is; we, the audience, are speculators suckered by the smug Saccard into investing in the machine, despite neither him nor us knowing what it does. SHUNT’s playful sense of humour goes to work here, as we’re shown a gallery of ‘artist’s impressions of the future’ – Photoshopped images of the machine in the desert, coasting along railway tracks or perched halfway up a mountain.

The production itself is a series of disjointed scenes and encounters, ranging from the Kafka-esque (as Saccard pitches his ‘vision’ to eccentric business moguls who entertain guests only in the sauna, or travel only by footcycle) to the Python-esque (as Saccard turns a board meeting into a blackly comic game of condolence one-upmanship) to the weirdly voyeuristic (as we sip champagne and observe events occurring two storeys below, through two layers of plate glass).

Each individual scene is entertaining, often humorous, but it’s difficult to identify the purpose of the whole by examining the parts, and a certain amount of imagination is required to fill in the blanks. In that regard, it’s a bit like the machine itself; and the machine itself, as I’ve mentioned, is a bit like investment banking. It’s inhabited both by presentable official staff and by unacknowledged, sinister unknowns. It has levels and mechanisms that aren’t revealed until the very end. And as it barrels towards disaster, the obvious exits are sealed off, forcing those foresighted few to abandon ship by less conventional means.

Written by SHUNT Collective after Émile Zola

Crew includes Francesca Peschier (scenic artist), George Tomlinson (head of construction) and Paul Ross (chief carpenter)

Cast includes Serena Bobowski, Gemma Brockis, Lizzie Clachan, Louisa Mari, Hannah Ringham, Layla Rosa, David Rosenberg, Andrew Rutland, Mischa Twitchin and Heather Uprichard

Need a second opinion?

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